AMSTERDAM – Visitors to the Rijksmuseum’s huge, arched galleries of Dutch old masters can feel like they have the whole place to themselves these days. Before the pandemic, around 10,000 people crowded every day. Now it’s about 800.
In theory, despite strict social distancing guidelines – visitors must book in advance, wear a mask, follow a set path, and stay at least three feet apart – the Dutch National Museum could accommodate up to 2,500 people per day. But the public isn’t exactly crowding around those limited tickets.
Across the city, the Hermitage Amsterdam Museum has expanded an exhibition of imperial jewels from the Russian State Collection, which drew 1,100 visitors a day last year. Now the museum has capped daily ticket sales to 600, even though it only sells about half.
With cultural institutions reopening in the United States with new coronavirus protocols, many have looked to Europe, where many museums have been open since May, for a preview of how the public might react to the invitation to return. So far there is little reason to be optimistic.
Almost all European museums suffer from visitor losses, but their ability to deal with it depends almost entirely on how they are funded. Institutions backed by government funds can weather the storm with a slight tightening of their belts, while those who depend on ticket sales face more difficult choices. Many lay off employees and restructure their business models.
Visitor information from across Europe tells a fairly consistent story: museums that have reopened have about a third of the visitors they had around this time last year. The Louvre in Paris has around 4,500 to 5,000 visitors a day, compared to around 15,000 a year ago. The Berlin State Museums, a group of 18 museums in the German capital, report around 30 percent of their usual visitor numbers.
Others are worse off. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has around 400 visitors a day, up from 6,500 in the past. “It is really, very quiet in the museum,” said its director Emilie Gordenker.
Travel restrictions and border closings have drastically reduced the number of international tourists in European capitals. In the summer, Dutch institutions reported an increase in tourism from neighboring Belgium and Germany. This eased again when the school year started in September and a spate of new coronavirus cases in the Netherlands led to “Code Red” warnings in several Dutch cities, including Amsterdam.
European governments support many national cultural institutions, but there are a wide range of business models across the continent, from privately owned museums that receive virtually no government money to those that are fully subsidized by taxpayers. In recent years, however, governments in many countries, including the Netherlands, have cut support for museums as politicians have promoted the “American model” of funding, which places them more reliant on earned income.
The Rijksmuseum and the Hermitage Amsterdam, less than 10 minutes apart by bike, represent two points in this spectrum. While the Dutch National Museum receives a third of its funding from the government, the Hermitage, a private initiative, has no government subsidy and relies on ticket sales for 70 percent of its budget.
“Seniors were our core business,” said Paul Mosterd, deputy director of the Hermitage Amsterdam. “We had a lot of senior groups, a group of friends of pensioners or grandpa celebrating his 80th birthday with a tour and lunch.” Such patrons are now wary of indoor spaces and public transportation, he said, making the museum more reliant on younger visitors. But he added, “This generation is not coming.”
Several European countries – including the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands – have already announced government rescue packages for the arts. However, many local institutions are still forecasting deficits.
“We anticipate enormous losses and a very slow return to normality over the next few years,” said Lidewij de Koekkoek, director of the Rembrandt House, a museum in the artist’s former home and studio. Before the pandemic, 80 percent of museum visitors were international tourists.
“We expect to get back to our normal visitor numbers in 2024,” she added. “Financially, it’s quite a disaster.”
Ms de Koekkoek said the Rembrandt House lost about 2.5 million euros, or around $ 3 million, due to the drop in visitor numbers – more than half of its total budget.
A bailout from the Dutch government and support from the city of Amsterdam has helped recoup about $ 1 million, she said. “On the upside, it’s back to basics and thinking about the future is very creative,” she added.
Yilmaz Dziewior, director of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, said the country’s museums were lucky because they have long received generous government subsidies. Few, he said, are at risk of failure, even if visitors don’t come.
“The crisis also showed how robust or healthy the German system is compared to the US,” he said. “We need the visitors, but they don’t make up that large part of our total budget.”
He said that in the museum’s annual budget of around 13 million euros, around 3.5 million euros come from earned income, of which 1.8 million euros come from ticket sales. He expects a loss of half of that.
However, the museum’s financial situation has led to a rethink, said Dziewior. “One thing that showed us is that we need to work more with our own collection,” he said. “We do so many shows where we send works from all over the world, which is not good ecologically, economically or in any other way. The crisis made these problems clearer. “
Hermitage Amsterdam’s Mr Mosterd said the crisis had forced museum staff to rethink exhibitions that might appeal to a different type of visitor. An exhibition of medieval art, for example “Romanovs under the spell of knights”, has been redesigned with a greater focus on armor, weapons and battles.
“It’s better for families with young children, which is, in a way, a new audience for us,” said Mosterd. “This is 100 percent a change we made for marketing reasons.”
Mr Dziewior said refocusing the Ludwig Museum and finding a more sustainable and comprehensive approach to visitors – especially those who live on-site – is unlikely to be a temporary shift.
“One thing that the crisis showed us was that the so-called normal was not normal,” he said. “Our aim is not to go back to where we left off.”